Putin’s biggest mistake was believing Ukrainians were really Russians

Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch the full-scale invasion of Ukraine was based on a series of disastrous miscalculations. The most significant of these was his belief that Ukrainians are really Russians. Putin has long insisted Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” who have been artificially separated by the fall of the USSR. For Putin, this separation has come to symbolize the perceived historical injustice of the Soviet collapse, which he has previously described as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. In February 2022, he set out to correct this alleged “injustice,” once and for all.

Putin’s fundamental misreading of Ukraine is now plain to see. Far from welcoming Russia’s invasion, the Ukrainian nation united and rose up in resistance. What was anticipated by the Kremlin as a brief and victorious military campaign has instead become the biggest European war since World War II. But if the scale of Putin’s blunder is obvious, it is important to note that he is far from the only Russian harboring such delusions. Russia’s elites and Russian society as a whole tend to assume everything that needs to be known (or is worth knowing) about Ukraine and Ukrainians has long been known and requires no further inquiry. This helps to explain why until fairly recently, there were hardly any academic or analytical centers in Russia devoted specifically to Ukrainian studies.

Today’s Russian attitudes toward Ukraine reflect centuries of imperial Russian and Soviet nationality policy. In the former case, Ukrainians (and Belarusians) were officially viewed as components of a larger, supranational “all-Russian people” that also included the Russians themselves. Meanwhile, for most of the Soviet period, the Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian republics were seen as the Slavic core and foundation for another supranational entity, the “Soviet people.”

The similarity between the imperial and Soviet views is unmistakable, albeit with one dissonant nuance: Soviet nationality policy, while doing all it could to erase Ukrainian national identity, at the same time officially recognized the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as a state entity and Ukrainians as a separate nationality. Putin has been highly critical of Lenin for this approach, and has claimed the Bolshevik leader was personally responsible for “creating” Ukraine. This line of thinking reached what may be seen as its logical conclusion with Putin’s insistence that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people.” By denying the existence of a separate Ukrainian national identity, Putin brought the legitimacy of Ukrainian statehood into question and set the stage for the current war.

Stay updated

As the world watches the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfold, UkraineAlert delivers the best Atlantic Council expert insight and analysis on Ukraine twice a week directly to your inbox.

Russian misconceptions about Ukraine are in part due to the simplistic notion that ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine, as well as those who express an affinity for Russian culture or share Russia’s antagonism toward the EU, NATO, and the West in general, all fall within the same “pro-Russian” category. Likewise, Many Russians have been all too ready to assume that any Ukrainian expressing nostalgia for the Soviet era is waiting to be “liberated” by Moscow. These misconceptions have been echoed by numerous commentators in the West, who have similarly treated evidence of favorable Ukrainian attitudes toward modern Russia or the Soviet past as indications of a desire for some form of Russian reunion.

In reality, being “pro-Russian” is understood one way in Ukrainian cities like Donetsk, Kramatorsk, or Mariupol, and quite differently in Moscow, Omsk, or Tomsk. During the initial stages of Russian aggression against Ukraine in April 2014, the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology conducted a wide-ranging poll in the eight southeastern Ukrainian provinces (excluding Crimea) targeted by the Kremlin. This revealed that 70 percent of respondents were against separation from Ukraine and unification with Russia, while just 15 percent were in favor.

If separation from Ukraine was not on their wish list, what did they in fact want? A relative majority of 45 percent preferred the decentralization of power and greater rights for their region; another 25 percent favored a federated Ukraine, while only 19 percent were happy with the existing relationship with Kyiv. Other surveys conducted at around the same time yielded similar findings.

Unsurprisingly, Russia’s full-scale invasion has further shaped Ukrainian attitudes toward issues of national identity. Today, the people of Ukraine are more consolidated as a political nation than at any time since regaining independence more than thirty years ago. According to the Razumkov Centre, 94 percent of respondents in a May 2023 survey expressed pride in their Ukrainian citizenship; 74 percent expressed feelings of patriotism and love for their country; and 71 percent were ready to come to its defense, either with weapons in hand or as participants in volunteer support groups.

Meanwhile, negative attitudes toward Russia and Russian citizens have skyrocketed. At the end of 2019, only 20 percent of Ukrainians held negative attitudes toward Russians; six months after the start of the full-scale Russian invasion in September 2022, 80 percent of respondents asserted that they would not allow Russians into Ukraine. In terms of attitudes toward Russia, the turnaround has been even more drastic. In early February 2022, about a week before the Russian invasion, 34 percent of Ukrainians held positive views of Russia. That number dropped to just two percent three months later, with 92 percent saying they viewed the country in a negative light.

With the war clearly going badly for the Kremlin, there could now be a glimmer of hope for some reality-based adjustments to Russian illusions about Ukraine. Russian MP Konstanin Zatulin, who is well known for championing the plight of Russian “compatriots” abroad and promoting aggressive policies toward Ukraine, has recently questioned the wisdom of denying Ukrainian identity. “I would be happy if there was no Ukraine, but if we continue to constantly repeat that there is no Ukraine and no Ukrainians,” this will only strengthen their resistance on the battlefield, he noted at a June 2023 forum in Moscow.

Zatulin’s comments hint at growing recognition in Russia that widely held beliefs about Ukraine’s indivisibility from Russia are both inaccurate and unhelpful. However, resistance to the entire notion of Ukrainian statehood is so deeply ingrained in Russian society that it may take generations before the attitudes underpinning the current war are no longer dominant.

Roman Solchanyk is author of “Ukraine and Russia: The Post-Soviet Transition” (2001). He has previously served as a senior analyst at the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Research Institute and the RAND Corporation.

Further reading

The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

Follow us on social media
and support our work

Image: An image of Russian President Vladimir Putin smeared with blood stands out among Ukrainian flags in Plaza de España during a July 2023 demonstration. (Photo by David Canales / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)